Teaching Your Children about Derech Eretz

How to raise a family of mensches.

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At the playground…at synagogue…at a birthday party…it almost doesn’t matter where, you’ve seen it or heard it. Where are the manners and the values that our parents taught us? Where are the polite, well-mannered kids?  

Way of the World

Jewish tradition teaches us abut the notion of derekh eretz, commonly translated as "the way of the world."  Derekh eretz is the code of proper behavior that binds us to each other as human beings and as Jews. According to the midrash, derekh eretz "precedes" the Torah (Leviticus Rabbah 9:3). We can understand this to mean that even before we begin to do important things like study Torah and live in accordance with the mitzvot, we must live with derekh eretz.  Helping your child to learn common decency and appropriate behavior is crucial, and one of the most difficult parts of parenting. Here are some easy and not so easy ways you can begin to model derekh eretz in your own home.

Please and Thank You

Many interpret derekh eretz as good manners. Make please and thank you a part of your regular conversation, with every person. When your children see you thanking the service person at the gas station or the server at a restaurant, they learn that each person is valuable, and that each person’s role in the world is important.

little girl with dandelionThe Golden Rule

Life is busy. We don’t often think about what we say when we talk to others. But children are sponges, and soak up every action and every word, for good or for bad. They respond to the way you interact with them as parents, and they respond to the way you interact with their teachers and caregivers. Treat your children with the kind of respect they deserve:  this helps to lay a foundation for a mutually respectful parent-child relationship. Additionally, treat your parents with the same respect. Your children will learn how to relate to you by the way you treat your parents.

Table Manners

Some say that the family meal is an endangered species. We’ve lost the way to talk with each other as a family, reflect and share, learn table manners and conversation skills. Family mealtime allows us to create a sacred Jewish space for sharing blessings and giving thanks. Set aside time to begin your meal with hamotzi, the blessing over bread, and recite part or all of Birkat Hamazon, grace after meals. Create other family rituals of giving thanks. Use please and thank you when passing food, and always thank the person who prepared the meal. Setting the table together and cleaning up together can also become family rituals. Derekh eretz also includes the ways we relate to one another, and family mealtime conversation is a part of that. Take time to check in with all family members.

Hakhnasat Orhim:  Welcoming Guests

Welcoming guests and making them feel comfortable is one of the most basic components of derekh eretz. Teach your children how to be good hosts by greeting guests politely at the door, sharing toys, and offering snacks. Your children will learn the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, and will also learn how to be a polite guest in other people's homes.

Use the Word Mensch Often

Mensch, from the German, "man," is someone who is modest, honest, dependable, and kind to others. When you see someone (child or adult) behaving like a mensch, comment on it. When your children behave like mensches, tell them you’re proud. Identify what it is that they have done that is mensch-like, and how pleased you are that they are such good kids. They will love it, and aspire to be mensches more often…and they’ll be able, as well, to identify these traits in others and recognize them as worthy. The key is to catch your children being good, and let them know just how good they are.

Remember What is Age Appropriate

Last week, I was mortified when I found my generally well-behaved son lying on the floor of our shul lobby, where he appeared to be making snow angels in the carpet. I was, however, aware that it was at least an hour past his bedtime, he was hungry, and he is two. So after scooping him up and taking him home, I reflected on the need to identify what is age appropriate behavior, and when we expect our kids to be "too good."  If we aspire to teach our children about derekh eretz, and expect them to be model citizens, we have to provide settings where they can succeed. Children who are tired, hungry, and in places where grown-up behavior is expected often act out. If you can minimize those opportunities for misbehavior, you’ll be surprised by how good your children can be.

Make Shabbat the Ideal

When we experiment with new behaviors, we need a safe space in which to practice. Shabbat can be that laboratory for every Jewish family; the day to aspire to be our most polite, most respectful and best selves. If we wear our most beautiful clothing, enjoy the tastiest meals, and sanctify our blessings with the most beautiful of ritual objects on Shabbat, then we can also be our most beautiful selves by using our most respectful and welcoming language and behavior. Invite guests and practice on them!

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we learn from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah:  "If there is no Torah, there is no derekh eretz. And if there is no derekh eretz, there is no Torah (3:21)."  Jewish tradition and Jewish practice are intertwined with Jewish behaviors. One does not come before the other, but instead each one complements the other. By aspiring to lives filled with derekh eretz, we can teach our children that there is always room for change and growth, and that love, appreciation and respect are very Jewish words.

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Sara Shapiro-Plevan

Sara Shapiro-Plevan serves as the Coordinator of Congregational Education for New York City for the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.